story by Leslie Lang
photos by Dana Edmunds
His name was James Rumford, though I didn’t know it at the time. It was clear he had a passion for what he was doing; his interpretive role of a foreigner employed by the missionaries to operate the press was a highlight of the tour. I certainly didn’t anticipate, standing in that crowd of visitors, that one day he would be an award-winning children’s book writer and illustrator and a good friend who would even dedicate a book to me.
When I took a job at the museum, I learned Jim was much more than a talented role player. At home one day I discovered, handwritten in an old book, a family chant that had been lost for generations. Fascinated, Jim asked to see it, and I learned he read and spoke Hawaiian. He generously offered to publish the chant and an English translation, and I learned he was a papermaker and printer who makes elegant, handcrafted books through his company, Manoa Press, which he operates in a tiny studio off his garage.
And then his story got even more interesting. He met Harriett Oberhaus, a retired librarian and storyteller who encouraged him to write down and illustrate an original children’s tale he’d told her. Afterward, researching children’s book publishers, he noticed many of his favorite books were published by Houghton Mifflin. He sent the Boston company his manuscript, The Cloudmakers, with a
letter that essentially said, "I like your books. I hope you like mine." They did. Two months after he mailed the package, he had a contract for the first of what has become a long list of successful children’s books.
Like many of Jim’s books, The Cloudmakers is a fictional story crafted to illustrate a historical event, in this case the spread of Chinese papermaking to the Arab world. Ancient Arab historians noted that during a 751 AD battle, several Chinese papermakers were captured. The Cloudmakers tells a story of a Chinese grandfather and grandson taken prisoner during that battle. Trying to facilitate their release, the young boy blurts out that his grandfather can make cloudssheets of Chinese paper, it turns outand they are given seven days to prove it, using only their rope shoes, a walking stick and a worn carrying sack. Jim’s watercolor illustrations for the book were called "lyrical" by Kirkus Reviews, which said they "perfectly complement the spare, engaging text."
Jim, who grew up in Long Beach, California, is fifty-six, with short brown hair and a tidy, graying mustache and beard. He’s an intellectual yet easy to talk to; confident but down-to-earth. When something intrigues him, his whole face lights uphis eyebrows rise, his head tilts and his mouth opens in a delighted smile. He is gregarious and has a great sense of humor.
Since 1976, he and Carol have lived in Hawaii. Their home in Manoa Valley is filled with books and objects they’ve collected around the world. Jim has restored much of the older house himself, building glass-front cabinets and French doors, enclosing the porch and more. The phrase "Renaissance man" is overused, but it doesn’t seem a stretch when applied to Jim.
A linguist who speaks more than a dozen languages, Jim has drawn on his fascination with languages, alphabets and numbers for several of his children’s books, including his latest, Sequoyah, the Cherokee man who gave his people writing. Sequoyah tells the story of the Cherokee man who, in the 1820s, invented a Cherokee writing systemone based on syllables rather than letters. The New York Public Library named Sequoyah one of the 100 best children’s books for 2004. There’s a Monster in the Alphabet tells the story of the alphabet through the tale of Cadmus, the Phoenician who brought the alphabet to Greece. Nine Animals and the Well, a fable that’s also a counting book, illustrates the history of numbers as written in India, Arabia, North Africa and Europe.
Jim taught himself to read and write hieroglyphs for Seeker of Knowledge, which tells the true story of Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion. As a young boy, Champollion declared he would be the first to decipher Egypt’s hieroglyphsand he was. One can understand why Jim, who translated his story into hieroglyphs for the book’s cover pages, was fascinated.
"I’ve always thought, all my life, about how big the world is and how much there is to learn, but I get the feeling we’re going the opposite way, turning in on ourselves," he says. "I’m just going to keep trying to expand kids’ minds about this world and all the things that are in it."
Several of Jim’s children’s books are about Hawaii, such as The Island-below-the-Star, called one of the ten best children’s books of the year by a New York Times critic. The story follows five brothers, each with a special skill pertaining to Polynesian navigation, who sail to and become the first people in the Hawaiian islands.
Its newly released sequel, Dog-of-the-Sea-Waves, tells a story of the youngest brother befriending a monk seal and celebrates the Islands’ environment. Most pages have beautiful and detailed margin drawings of Hawaii’s unique and endangered plants and creatures, all carefully described in end notes. "I want to make kids all over the United States, all over the world, sensitive to this," he says. "In some ways, Dog-of-the-Sea-Waves is one of my favorites because I get to show people by my pictures how beautiful I think Hawaii is."
It’s one of my favorites, too, because it’s the one dedicated to me.
What now? He’s working on a children’s picture book retelling the epic tale of Beowulf using only words that can be traced to Old English. A Chuva da Manga (Mango Rain), a picture book he illustrated and wrote in Portuguese, is being published in Brazil. He also has eight or ten as-of-yet unpublished manuscripts completed and sitting around his house.
A couple of years ago on the Big Island, Jim and Carol and my husband and I floated lazily in a thermally heated pond near the ocean. The pond rose and lowered with the tide; when we finally got out, the tide was high, and a grassy ledge on the pond’s inside edge had been covered by water. Jim pointed to the grass and said, in his exuberant way, "Wait! I need to stand on that grass for a minute and pretend there’s been global warming and Central Park is underwater."
He did, and we watched that imagination soar, the sparks of his brain almost visible asjust for a momenthe crafted a whole story in his head. And then he moved on to his next idea.